A series of essays from exploring how living on the Reality-Virtuality Continuum will change how we live, work, love and play.
There is an interesting bias in modern culture — people are mainly hired for scientific and technical knowhow — not for humanity, morality, religion or creative talents.
This may seem a mute point, but it is leading to an unbalanced society.
As the kind of people who have an interest in numbers, measurements and processes take the best jobs and rise to become the leaders we will see a neglect in the softer, older, spiritual and emotional side of humanity.
The favoritism of abstractionism has created a neo-darwinistic pressure that selects again for even more technological genes and memes. It has given birth to a culture that is changing the world.
We already have billions of people visually and mentally jacked in to their smartphones. Millions of users are pushed around daily by Apps as computer algorithms extort them for attention. Even with the clunky, fiddly interfaces on mobile phones we have seen the users become “the used” for much of their free time.
Tomorrow’s Extended Reality interfaces will become so seamless and natural as to not be noticeable in daily life. Yet they will affect billions of humans, animals and plants in a novel ways. The world and everything in it will become driven by the Extended Reality interfaces designed by humans but controlled by A.I.
This modern post-enlightenment world we live in favours the selection of individuals who can understand the complexities we keep building and evolve them effectively. From an evolutionary biologists point of view it is perhaps just an iteration of mother nature’s grand experiment. I.e. Yesterday our ancestors survived using a primitive reptilian brain. Today we compete for survival using the neo-cortex of mammals. Tomorrow it will be the use of the external, or exo-cortex of computer systems, that will be the deciding factor between extinction and continuation of everything.
It’s believed the ancient, reptilian brain drives behaviours of desire — like hunger, breeding and bonding. Whereas the new cortex is optimised to be more of an abstract prediction system, encoding signals from reality via the biological sensors and offering cold understanding via its ability to self-organise into pattern recognition systems — predicting reality before it happens. This allows the organism to create a model of minimal surprise about the outside world whilst using minimal resources like attention and hence energy. Critically in non-human organisms these two circuits are tightly bound. However in humans we’ve developed feedback systems that have no limbic resonance — no emotional guard rails to keep everything in check. Global Warming and Nuclear Weapons are simple examples of systems that have could get out of hand. Extending these control systems — the ones that don’t really care about human wellbeing — into the fabric of our deepest reality could create a dystopian nightmare.
The abstractions, simplifications and un-emotion characteristics of the modern human neocortex are becoming imprinted on the world, stamping over all the natural behaviours of other species, and even frustrating our own primitive ancestral functions. Modern day psychologists are questioning if the slide into a more virtual, digital way of living is hurting us, both individually and collectively.
The extension of reality away from the natural world and into the digital is the due to emergence of the exo-cortex. The deep concept of general artificial intelligence will use all reality — and all the human and artificial minds wishing it — as a cognitive medium. It is up to its creators, us, if it should be kept in line with our natural values or be allowed to supersede everything.
Nowhere is this march into a valueless culture more evident than with the rise of computers in our world, and soon with the ubiquity of Extended Reality in our lives. Let’s look at how this might change us.
At birth, you are what you are born with. The external environment can then trigger or silence genes to express latent characteristics. After nurture takes over many of us construct a suit of behaviors to show or hide our natural gifts and disadvantages. We create and join cultures — shared histories that affect our feelings and sense of belonging. These social cultures group us with other people who respond with a predictable sensitivity to a guarded range of environmental stimuli. Society, Cultures and Class allow people to reach a place of minimal surprise when they surround themselves with similar minds.
But because these cultures are “made-up” mental constructs they can be designed to include or exclude any portion of the population at will. It is the agreed perception of acceptance that creates social reality.
For example, you can be accepted into a group like the “Working Men’s Football Club” if you display the correct response to the stimuli of beer, football and fighting. However the “Elite Wine Tasting Club” would probably favor members who could respond appropriately to the robustness of a clay-soiled Tempranillo. Seen this way, each social interface is a gate of expected responses for set of certain stimuli.
Yet stimulus response, leading to behavior, and thus all social culture, is still held on a leash by our genes and mediated by perceived, agreed reality. But what happens when the reality is no longer a single vista — but one that can become extended, distorted and manipulated before being broadcast to the individual? This is the current state of political subterfuge, with campaigns from Cambridge Analytics offering some insights. Has it always been this way? Has the truth always been stretched?
The world currently lives with many extensions of reality.
For example the Hindu caste system puts people into prescribed classes according to their occupation. Specifically it links a person’s occupation to the piece of flesh a deity used when making that occupation during Creation. The ‘better’ the piece of flesh, the higher the class of the worker ( with the feet of Purusa being used to make the Shudras, or working class). The English aristocracy divides people by who their grandparents married. The Nazi movement divided people by those who the great-great-grandparents were.
Most of these culture systems assume that the capabilities of a person are immovably biased to their birth given genes. This foundation was seen as so solid as to fix the boundary of an entire lifetime before, even before the person had a chance responded to any stimuli and show behavioural norms. (let alone had chance to express dormant genes, receive new genes from viral infections or edit a genome with Crispr). Many existing cultural system assert social immobility and keep the experiences of one class beyond the horizon of the other.
Culture can been seen as a subjective distortion applied to physical reality, and it objectively causes suffering in millions of humans.
This segregation of reality, has built massive, imaginary walls between the have and have-nots, imperialists and natives, theists and infidels, democrats and liberals, the 1% and the rest.
Historically our cultures have told us to look for indicators like skin colour, breeding, parental occupations and other differences and we have been taught “We are similar, it is good. They are different, it is bad”. And thus the gulf widens between societies, cultures, countries; conflict increases and global suffering is increased. This innate behaviour of humans to form tribes of war has been linked to infection and immunity. It makes sense to keep away from new people who might carry new germs or viri that could harm you. But with the advent of the technologies like VR (and medicine) these fears are unwarranted.
Extended Reality will has the power to destroy all the prejudices of the past. It will be a great social leveller — every human and godlike experience is available. And a great spiritual dehumaniser — you can no body and can just be a metaphysical entity.
Extended Reality will be will be an equalizer for humanity. It allows anyone with a headset to experience the life of The Others. For instance will be able to see through the eyes of an Arabian Billionaire — to live in a palace with 30 rooms, and visit the Hareem every day. Or live as the poorest on earth, with nothing and no-one around.
It is possible to spend real time in any place and taste the hard reality of being present. Any location or lifestyle is easy to experience. Building Palaces in VR is as easy as building Gulags.
Extended Reality can also change the clothes you wear, the body you move, and the way people respond to you.
For Instance, the VR Apps “We Wait” and “Clouds of Sidra” allow you to be part of the Syrian refugee crisis in a personal way. You are placed there, on a beach in Syria, without a means of escape. There are people, humans just like you, all around, all worried and waiting.
It is impossible to come away from these VR experiences without being changed.
“You weren’t there, man” became a popular meme after the Vietnam War to offer a measure of distance between the reality of war and the thoughts of non-vets of what it must be like. VR allows everyone to ‘be there’. Wherever, or whoever there is. All the VR experiences let you see the world of the others from a personal, social vantage point. After all it is still you doing the experiencing, and it is easy to be shocked. You can see what it’s like to be an ethnic minority in a racist world and experience how it feels to be stared at. How it feels to be an attractive lady walking through Brooklyn, abused by cat calling suitors. Or how it feels to be a peadophile and struggle with desire and morality.
Extended Reality will allow a new space for meeting with people — a place where pre justices won’t makes sense. In the virtual world people can have any colour, any voice, belong to any group. Just like with the globalisation of the internet — it will be a fresh start for many and a rebalancing of attitudes.
Whilst class definitions provide the walls to lock down inequality, education brings the sledge hammer against these divides. Once a privilege, now a right, education is a levelling force. And VR not only promises mass education accessible to all, but also brings a lifetime of ambient learning. Whereas learning was once available only via tutors or indirectly via libraries or the internet, it will soon be all around us in Digital Reality.
Education was a luxury — and travelling to schools, buying books and paying for teacher performances was a huge cost. VR can virtually eliminate all these overheads through scale of economy. No longer do kids need to travel anywhere. Books are just digitally displayed on the table where they sit. And one teacher’s excellent performance can be broadcast to everyone, repeatedly. Even the interaction between students and holders of knowledge can be replaced via AI — usign chatbots and virtual interactions.
The entension of reality into a digital canvas will just bring morally-positive cultural reforms. The web is hard to police. Over 20% of visible web traffic is violent pornography. And the web is getting darker. Innumerable spaces exist for illegal content like snuff movies and, questionably, worse content. VR worlds are even harder to police. VR spaces will let you not only view, but commit acts of murder, rape and torture.
These first-hand experiences are available to everyone. You can plan and execute virtual bombings in public places. See the world burn for fun. It is not even up for debate what (im)moral experiences should be banned, if any, because few will listen. The moral landscapes available to the VR world will be as open as its creator’s minds, and available to all. The counter-culture to an idyllic digitally enhanced reality could be a very violent and destructive one.
Our shared reality could also be manipulated by dark agents in ways more subtle that today’s subconscious advertising. For example the Cinema Industry was prohibited from showing 25ms images of popcorn spliced into films just before the intermission break, as it worked too well.
The Extended Reality space is not under this legislation and hence providers could show microsecond images or audio tricks to divert human behaviour. Manipulation of the mind, by using algorithms capable of starting a limbic resonance with the human endo-chemical system, is already commonplace in Web based media — and is inevitable in the Extended Reality space.
Society needs countercultures to test the status quo. Youth is driven to countercultures. Great movements of the world like Buddhism, Christianity, Special Relativity (and arguably Facebook) were all created by young people fighting the establishment.
Today’s youth is solidly rooted in a culture of social platforms, and hence controlled by them. If Extended Reality platforms are going to be as big as we expect then the youth must be able to take control and own them.
They must not let the global corporations, the success of capitalism or the history of politics decree what can and cannot be done with these transformative tools. They must build their own platforms and not be tempted by the free social networks that are locked into surveillance and advertising.
As the big platforms roll out their extensions on reality we expect to see the same playbooks being used. But we should be careful to not let Apple force us to only use their ‘prescribed’ walled-garden reality. We should not let Facebook trick us into signing a contract which gives them all the rights to reality. And we should not let google give us a free digital world — in exchange for them selling your data for ads. The Extended Reality we are creating should remain open and free from techo-fascism.
Whoever controls this new reality will be more powerful than any currently existing government. Extended Reality will become the preferred reality for the world (most of us prefer it already).
It is likely the next counter-culture will build its own realities and its own economies. Digital Reality will break the rules. After all, the extensions we are building to reality will not follow the laws of physics. AR Graffiti will hover in mid air. Gangs will their change skin colour and race at will to show allegiance to a new kind of Kekistan. This disobedience to classic reality will beg questions of societal norms. The youth might begin to ask why old people used to swap pockets of dirty paper for temporary and wasteful objects.
As noted above, we already live in a classic world of extended reality. The traditional cultures we keep in our minds create exclusive societies — virtual walls to exclude other people from entering. These cultures used to take a long time to bring into existence, and have slowly been passed down through generations of the population. But with the rise of digital tools we are sharing new subjective realities, which is creating new human cultures at a fantastic rate.
And this is only the beginning of the beginning.
The next 10 years will dwarf the previous 10 in terms of the changes that humans will see. And most of this will happen in an Extended Reality.
Did you enjoy our post? You can comment and join the chat on Medium
Create your free account to unlock your custom reading experience.